Something Close to Music: Late Art Writings, Poems, and Playlists
(David Zwirner Books, 2022)
Something Close to Music, part of David Zwirner’s Ekphrasis series, brings together a selection of later writings by the poet John Ashbery (1927–2017). The collection presents Ashbery’s poetry through the lens of other art forms—by way of later poems, music, and minor writing projects, arranged chronologically from 1988 through 2007. Actual playlists, compiled from the poet’s music library by the editor Jeffrey Lependorf, are featured as bookends to each section. Mónica de la Torre, who wrote an introduction to the book, describes the assignment well: “Read it as a discontinuous record of Ashbery’s loves … and as a side entrance into his poetics.” In fact, the curation of these texts allows one to read with as much freedom as one listens to a playlist, in sequence or on shuffle.
Ashbery is best known for poems such as The Tennis Court Oath and Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror—but in this selection of lesser known and later works, the lyrical, at times fragmented expression of his more abstract poems proves deft and moving. Poems such as “Life as a Book That Has Been Put Down” (1989) and “Flow Chart: Part II” (1991) beckon us across a moody landscape that modulates between moments of optimism and disappointment (the mention of “projects like half-assembled watches” in “Flow Chart: Part II” feels like true despair).
Although the earliest of these poems were written nearly three decades ago, the attempt to self-direct and situate one’s perspective in relation to distressing circumstances seems particularly relevant today and perhaps always so. “We can see into the future / As into a dimple / and nothing says to proceed, to go on planning,” Ashbery writes in “Flow Chart: Part II”. Temporally prescient and nostalgic, often looking to the past, as well as forward, a poetic simultaneity and cadence helps conjure a paradox we are all beholden to: an awareness of our age through the acknowledgement of time passed and that we are never as young as we are in the present.
In “Vetiver” (1987), Ashbery constructs meandering passages that move us through an undulating of words and phrases bearing a melancholic temperament: “seasons passing,” “ashes of roses,” “snakes shedding skin”—Ashbery’s poetry, effortlessly metaphoric and sensorial, crafts decadent lines that inspire connection between aural, visual, and textual. And despite or because of these sensuous phrases, the poem’s thematic undercurrents of morose conclusion are even more stirring: “Well, it just kind of came apart in the hand / As a chances voiced, sharp / As a fishhook in the throat, and decorative tears flowed / Past us into a basin called infinity.”
In the first essay of the collection Ashbery professes his childhood desire to become a painter, and the best subsequent prose essays are ones which are rich with affection for painting as they are also stories of a personable and anecdotal type. Shared alongside the beguiling and formal precision of his poems, Ashbery’s art writing is more open-ended, free-form, yet still evocative. In an essay on Trevor Winkfield, Ashbery writes “all art aspires towards the condition of music” and of Winkfield’s painting, “each element of the painting has its precise pitch, its duration.” In a piece on the painter Jane Freilicher, he describes the remarkable light of her still life paintings as a visual sensation: “the grayish-pink twilight that sometimes presses down on New York, or the brassy-yellow exhausted light at the end of summer.” Genre by its very definition is predictable because anything that exists within its edges must share some likeness in form—yet as verse and prose mix here within the same slim volume, it’s clear that both the poet as well as art writer, John Ashbery, are one in the same.
The true charm of Ashbery’s art writing is found less in his criticism and more in his characterization of the artists he knew intimately—the eternal orneriness of Larry Rivers who “specialized in being hopeless and making it work for him,” the unrelenting niceness of Joe Brainard, who was “as nice as a person as an artist,” and the loveable thorniness of Joan Mitchell which Ashbery likened to “embracing a rose-bush”—the candor of these portraits also explains the origins of each individual’s artistic persistence and heretofore brilliance.
Larry Rivers, a painter with whom Ashbery shared a close friendship over many years, is described by the poet in a character portrait as perpetually “out of sync” with the times, possessing a remarkable ability to resist what may seem popular or profitable. Ashbery writes how despite Rivers being a “trial and sorrow to his friends … What would we have without him?” Years later, Ashbery returns to the topic of his friend’s stubbornness and what emerged from a lifetime of talent and persistence; he regards the artist’s Silver Infanta, a riff of Velazquez, as “more beautiful than any of Picasso’s forays into the same territory” and the masterful completion of his last painting as “clear and straightforward … one of his most beautiful works.” Ashbery’s approach toward describing his artist friends is formed by his sense of astonishment toward their craft and supportive admiration. In a lament acknowledging the nearing end of River’s long life, Ashbery declares good luck to the art critics who would eventually sift through his friend’s life work and encounter a “glittering bonanza” of painting.
It’s impossible to pin down exactly all the shapes and contours of Something Close to Music, since there are many overlapping and meandering paths to pursue—but perhaps that’s the point—the narrative logic doesn’t need to be more exact than a life gorgeously assembled and described through fragments of experience and writing. It’s always possible to form meaning and story from chronology and the building of an artist’s life is not only through the primary work made but also from the things and people observed, loved, and encountered. Read this book as a playlist, or as any artwork that is drawn from the stuff of life; discover the biography revealed at its edges and interpret it as a portrait, a diary, or a letter from John Ashbery, because it’s just as his poem The Improvement (1991) offers—“We never live long enough in our lives / to know what today is like.”